Laura Fermi (1907-1977) was an author and historian, as well as the wife of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi. She worked as an assistant to Dr. Louis Hempelmann of the Los Alamos Health Group during the Manhattan Project, and wrote a unique and detailed first-hand account of life at the Los Alamos and Chicago sites.
LIFE IN ITALY
Fermi was born Laura Capon in 1907 in Rome, Italy. Her father, Augusto Capon, was an admiral in the Italian Navy. The Capons were an upper-middle-class Jewish family, though they were very assimilated and did not practice any religion. Laura studied at a fashionable liceo (akin to an American high school) and then entered the University of Rome, where she studied natural sciences. She met Enrico Fermi at a soccer game with friends in 1924, and Enrico became a professor at the University around when Laura entered as a student. The two were married in 1928, and Laura dropped out of school, since married women in Italy at that time did not usually work.
The Fermis had their first child, Nella, in 1931. Their second, Giulio, was born in 1936. That same year, two major changes came to Laura’s life. The first was that she published her first book, co-written with Ginestra Amaldi, the wife of Enrico’s collaborator Edoardo Amaldi. Alchemy of Our Times, written in Italian, explained their husbands’ work for laypeople. Fermi had previously helped her husband write a high school physics textbook, taking dictation and giving Enrico feedback on the book’s comprehensibility. This distillation of complicated physics would become a theme of her writing later on.
The other major change was that Mussolini’s government took an official anti-Semitic stance, spurred by the new alliance with Nazi Germany. The Fermis were already staunchly opposed to the fascist ideology (despite Enrico’s Fascist Party membership, a matter of professional necessity). But this change in policy worried them more than they had been before. Though Laura was not a practicing Jew, and her children were baptized Catholic, the laws that eventually passed could have applied to them. When Mussolini declared this new stance, the Fermis decided to leave for the United States.
Laura had been to the US once before, accompanying Enrico for a summer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. On that occasion, she had been overwhelmed by the massive cities, new language, and unfamiliar history and culture. Living in the US permanently (and leaving Italy, to which she would not return for many years) required additional adjustment.
STOCKHOLM, NEW YORK, AND CHICAGO
The Fermis received the perfect opportunity to leave Italy when Enrico was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938. They boarded a train bound for Sweden in December, telling Italian authorities that they would be gone for just six months. After a tense stop at a German border checkpoint, they arrived in Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony. They arrived in New York from there on January 2, 1939. Enrico had accepted a job at Columbia University, one of many American schools that had offered him a position. The family lived in Manhattan for a few months, then moved to the suburb of Leonia, New Jersey.
After war broke out in 1941, they had to contend with being “enemy aliens,” as did all Italian citizens in the US. This restricted Enrico’s travel, even as he began working for the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) in Chicago. These mysterious trips to Chicago also began what Laura called “a voluntary system of censorship” where Enrico did not talk about his work and Laura did not ask (many) questions. This secrecy increased when they moved to Chicago in 1942. New families were shown a film about the consequences of negligence with sensitive information. One of the few secrets Fermi did know was that the Met Lab was not actually populated by metallurgists.
In Leonia, Fermi had been mainly occupied with homemaking and taking care of her children. But in Chicago, with the war underway, she took on volunteering tasks, including sewing for the Red Cross. She also did some of the planning for worst-case scenarios: what the family might do if Germany invaded the US. In December 1942, she hosted a party for many of the Met Lab workers and their spouses. At the party, every scientist congratulated Enrico. Laura would not find out until 1945 what had happened: her husband had supervised the world’s first nuclear chain reaction. She first heard of what happened at the “Pile” when Enrico gave her an advance copy of the Smyth Report.
AT LOS ALAMOS
In July 1944, the Fermis became American citizens. A month later, they moved to the mysterious Site Y in Los Alamos. Secrecy and security were far more intense there. Laura was given cryptic instructions about the trip to New Mexico; the soldier who met them at the Santa Fe rail station addressed her by a pseudonym. When they arrived at the site, they were offered lodging in the area reserved for project leaders. Some Los Alamos residents resented the families that lived in those more “prestigious” accommodations. Fermi wisely elected to forego them. The family had to adapt to life in the spartan Army apartments, a far cry from their suburban home in Leonia.
Wives were encouraged to work at Los Alamos, even as Women’s Army Corps members became available for clerical work. Fermi worked for Hempelmann in the Health Group, taking blood counts. She was not allowed to know why the blood counts were necessary, but she still gleaned some pieces of sensitive information. She knew valuable information (from a gossip standpoint) about personnel transfers, and heard rumors about the Trinity Test. She also witnessed the tragedy of Harry Daghlian, who died of acute radiation poisoning after a laboratory criticality incident. Fermi saw the effects of radiation without knowing the cause.
On the morning of August 7, 1945, when Fermi first heard about the Hiroshima bombing, a number of mysteries from the past few years became clear to her. She wrote later on how she and the other wives felt pride in their husbands, as well as in their own contributions to the project, but later began to grapple with the ethical dilemmas of the project. After the war’s end, Fermi was one of several Los Alamos women who organized a party for citizens of neighboring Santa Fe, who had worked at and watched the site with suspicion over the previous few years. Finally, at the end of 1945, the Fermis returned permanently to Chicago.
POST-WAR LIFE AND LITERARY CAREER
Fermi credited Cyril Smith with proposing that she write a book about her husband. Her first response was, “My husband is the man I cook and iron shirts for. How can I take him that seriously?” But she nonetheless published Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi in 1954, as Enrico was dying of cancer. Despite the circumstances, the book is a lighthearted combination of biography, physics, and memoir. Fermi frequently pokes fun at the oddities of scientific culture while admiring its accomplishments.
Atoms in the Family contains accounts of famous physicists’ personality quirks, such as Niels Bohr’s skiing prowess, Edward Teller’s obsession with Lewis Carroll, and the spy Klaus Fuchs’s cold politeness. It also contains Fermi’s own insights: she speculates that the heavy involvement of European scientists in the early stages of the Manhattan Project was due to the existing relationship in Europe between universities and governments.
Between 1957 and 1968, Fermi published five more books. The first was Atoms for the World: United States Participation in the Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, which she completed in 1957 as a historian for the Atomic Energy Commission. This was followed by The Story of Atomic Energy, a history of the Manhattan Project for young people; Galileo and the Scientific Revolution, co-written with Gilberto Bernardini; and Mussolini. Her last book was Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-41. At the time of her death, she had two unpublished works: another history, and an atomic history-related mystery story.
Fermi also thrived as an activist late in life. She participated in the League of Women Voters, and fought for cleaner air and stricter gun control. She was reportedly a “mine” of information about these causes, memorizing statistics and legal statutes.
She died on December 26, 1977. At her memorial service, Emilio Segrè, Alice Kimball Smith, and Ruth Grodzins gave speeches about her. Segre said, “Her force, intelligence, and benevolence blossomed in her later years in a remarkable way and she was one of those rare persons that kept growing in stature all her life.”
NB: Much of the information for this profile comes from Atoms in the Family, and from the biography published by Olivia Fermi on the Fermi Effect website.